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Home | All | Courage, empathy and reading the room: Kirstin Ferguson shares how we can all be great leaders

Courage, empathy and reading the room: Kirstin Ferguson shares how we can all be great leaders

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Brianna Boecker

January 16, 2023

Leadership is a skill that we can all harness with the right amount of courage, humility and empathy– powers that women often embody well.

Despite history handing privileged men more formal leadership positions, all of us– from a checkout operator at Woolies to the Prime Minister of a country– can effectively step up to the plate, read what the room needs in key moments and be great leaders (no Harvard Business leadership course required). 

Award-winning and globally recognised Australian leadership expert, Kirstin Ferguson tells Women’s Agenda, “Leadership is simply a series of moments.”

“We all have different moments. It’s our choice to leave as positive a legacy as we can in those moments.”

Ferguson joined the Women’s Agenda podcast to share her wisdom on the subject of leadership ahead of her new book’s release– Head & Heart: The Art of Modern Leadership.

“I wanted to write a book that reminds everyone we’re all leaders, ” says Ferguson. “Then I want to remind everyone that we’ve all got the capacity to be great leaders if we can lead with our head and our heart.”

One of the inputs Ferguson had while writing the book was during the pandemic when she watched a nineteen-year-old checkout operator at Woolies take charge of a difficult customer with grace. This leadership was despite the fact that the young woman didn’t have a formal title or staff beneath her– none of which mattered to her ability to lead.

When we look at leaders who do have those formal titles on the global scale, not all of them act with the capacity for great leadership. 

“The Trumps and the Putins and the Musks and all of those – I think if it came down to it, we don’t trust them, because we know what we’re getting on the outside isn’t necessarily what we might see at all aspects of their life,” says Ferguson.

On the flipside are humble leaders like Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Jacinda Ardern, who Ferguson says have both “managed to wield their authority in a way that really integrates who they are as humans and not just using the authority of what is given to them through [their] title.”

“Both of them show courage and empathy. Empathy is such a misunderstood quality of leaders. It’s not sympathy. It’s not pity. It’s not compassion. It’s not allowing someone else’s situation to impact your leadership,” says Ferguson.

“It’s trying to lead and include voices different to your own and understanding that you need to put yourself in the shoes of others to really understand what’s missing from a room.”

Ferguson also points to Zelensky and Ardern’s willingness to be “seen” as human.

Ardern will post a photo of herself “in her tracksuit on a sofa with baby vomit on her shoulder” because she knows this “doesn’t impact her ability to lead effectively”, while Zelenskyy will wear “the same green t-shirts and combat gear that the people of Ukraine are wearing”.

It’s not just the suit-clad male CEOs who are leaders. Effective leadership happens from activist leaders, academics, carers and that single mum at home starting a jewelry business from her kitchen table to support her family.

Often the leaders we’ve celebrated throughout history were the men born into power and privilege, says Ferguson. 

“The introduction of women being recognised as important leaders with formal authority– but also acknowledging the women who are around us everyday– that’s where we’re seeing empathy and leadership really come to the fore.”

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